Through seven years as the Canucks coach, Alain Vigneault never became “The Show” in Vancouver. He was an everyday, willing quote, as the coach is supposed to be. A calming, explanatory voice most of the time. Through good times and bad, it was never about Vigneault.
As his first season in the Western Conference approached, John Tortorella swore it wouldn’t be about him either. Particularly when it came to his relationship with the media. “I don’t hide from my history,” he said back in August, while readying for his first Canucks camp. “I think there are some good things I have done with my intensity and how I have handled things. And there have been a number—as long as my arm—of stupid things. I get that. I will put it to you this way: I am really cognizant that I need to change there.”
As this lost season crawls to a conclusion in Vancouver, we can say Tortorella succeeded in making the media sessions less about himself. But did that discipline find its release in his assault on the Calgary dressing room? Clearly, Tortorella was better off aiming his derision at Larry Brooks than Bob Hartley. His real downfall, however, is that he hasn’t been able to apply himself to the team that Alain Vigneault left behind. “We’re losing games, so I’m the idiot,” Tortorella said Monday. “And he’s winning games, so he’s the smart guy.”
Vigneaul has taken Tortorella’s Rangers and virtually equaled last season’s output. As he brings the playoff-bound Blueshirts to Rogers Arena tonight, the club is on pace for 95 points this season. If last season had featured an 82-game schedule, the Rangers would have had 96 points.
No one has to be an idiot here. But if the comparison is that Tortorella’s job is likely in serious jeopardy after only one year in Vancouver, while Vigneault’s standing is entirely stable in New York, then the question becomes, why the difference?
For starters, it appears Vigneault has shaped his coaching style to his new roster, rather than the other way around. “Any coach in this league adjusts the way he handles a team to the personnel that he has,” Vigneault says. “You might have certain things that you prefer to do, but you need the personnel to be able to apply certain things.”
Did he say, “Any coach?”
Not the coach in Vancouver, where Tortorella has rammed his own style down the throat of the Canucks roster like pounding a screw in with a hammer. His new team was never going to be his old team, a shot-blocking, hard-grinding group that would wear down an Eastern Conference opponent in a low-scoring game. Tortorella has coached the Canucks that way, and it has been a playoff-missing disaster.
Vigneault found the Sedins’ value to be maximized at about 19:15 of ice time per game, with as many offensive-zone starts as possible. In return they produced like champions, and almost never missed a game to injury. Rather than accept conventional wisdom, Tortorella knew better. He tried to bring the Sedins to his way of playing the game, giving them an extra 90 seconds of ice time per night. Had them killing penalties, blocking shots.
His reward? Their production has plummeted and the games missed to injury has been, in Henrik’s case, at an all-time high. Daniel has only missed more games once in his NHL career. On a team known for its sleep doctors and mind rooms, Tortorella may as well have been Eddie Shore for all the forward thinking he has shown.
Top defenceman Alex Edler has been a train wreck, with only 10 points on the power play all season. Alex Burrows has spent too much of the season on Injured Reserve to make any judgments, but his year has marked a career low in production. Jannik Hansen went from averaging 0.57 points per game last season, to 0.30 this season.
The power play, meanwhile, is buried in 27th spot in the NHL. It ranked 22nd last season, fourth in 2011-12 and first in 2010-11, a decline that Tortorella has been unable to stem. Of course, Vancouver’s penalty kill ranks 10th, an area where Tortorella’s focus has made the Canucks strong.
Vigneault’s strength has been winning games and making the playoffs. “Some teams, sometimes, don’t have the personnel to play an offensive game,” he says. “So you’ve got to defend first, and hope you get enough chances to be into the game. This (team) here, we’re a happy medium of both. And we’re improving. The game’s getting better.”
Optimism. Oh, what a Canucks fan would do for a dose of that. “Are we going to get in? It’s very slim, and we’ve known that,” Tortorella said of Vancouver’s playoff chances. “But it still doesn’t stop you from working at your business with your team. That will go right to the bitter end until they say ‘You can’t play anymore.’”
At Madison Square Garden, they’ll host games in round one, at least. In Vancouver, just six games remain, including tonight against the Rangers.
Then they’ll be taking about Tortorella, and whether or not he should stay or be fired.